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July 23, 2009


Bendy Girl

I live in an area which still has selective education and myself attended a grammar school.
The biggest problem is that the grammar school entrants are skewed-almost all the children achieving grammar school places have benefited from intense exam tuition. Regardless of intelligence without that additional input either from parents or paid tutors children are extremely unlikely to gain a place.

Luis Enrique

Yes, the impact upon social mobility may not be very closely related to the impact on GSCE results - if they did increase 'mobility', Grammar schools could do so simply by teaching some poorer kids to speak with the right accent, for instance.

I suppose that the oft-repeated (and quite possibly entirely true) story about how Grammar schools took some clever kids from poor backgrounds and gave them a real leg up that they wouldn't otherwise have had, in a comprehensive system, is quite compatible with Grammar schools not having much of an effect on social mobility in aggregate, on average. The oft-repeated story involves a large effect upon a small number of children - you only need a small effect on a large number of children to cancel that out, on average.


The fact that the situation is complex means that a lack of obvious evidence does not negate the possibility. In fact I'd suggest you'd have to be pretty thick to not see how grammar schools inherently increased social mobility for those poorer people that were lucky enough to go. That this is a small number is irrelevent.

What else do you think has reduced social mobility since Labour?


Whenever this subject rears it's head I wait with bated breathe for the first person who went to a Secondary Modern to call for the return of their old type of school because such establishments promoted social mobility or educational achievement.


I think there is a fundamental problem with seeing education in simplistic terms of wealth, because it masks the underlying issue of people who value education highly and people who don't. Wealth may be correlative with this, but I've never seen anything that shows it's causative. People who value education provide encouragement and support to their kids, people who don't, well they don't do this! This doesn't mean people who get no encouragement can never achieve (the classic social science straw man is to find the examples against the trend or tendency and use them to argue the trend doesn't exist), it just makes it harder for them.

Wealth doesn't determine whether people value education, but it does determine how much resource they can put behind getting that better education i.e. moving house or going private. This is why it's stupid and meaningless for some to claim that those who use wealth to get a better education for their kids are trying to get away from the poor, they're not, they're trying to get away from people who don't value education which is rather different.

There are obvious sensitivities to this, it's easier to set up a straw man that scapegoats people with resources, than it is to tackle the issue of why some people don't value education and how to overcome that for the benefit of their kids.

Robert Dammers

Good grief! The Grammar Schools were the bit that worked. The great weakness was in vocational education for the less academically inclined. So the ideologues broke the bit that worked instead of fixing the bit that needed fixing. Thanks for that!

ITV reproduced an idealised old-style Secondary Modern for one of the later "That'll Teach Them" series. I would love for us to have schools like that - just the few weeks of filming could be seen transforming the life of one lad who couldn't fit in at a comprehensive that kept trying to make him a weak academic, instead of the talented bricklayer he discovered he wanted to be. And unlike your accountant, software developer or even surgeon, his job will not be outsourced overseas.


"Reading this research, I’m struck by the contrast between the vehemence of grammar school supporters and the ambiguity and complexity of the research."

Well, the research doesn't measure the same thing. For example, Hanushek and Woessman talk about selection increasing inequality of education, and possibly weakly decreasing mean performance. Galindo-Rueda and Vignoles claim that in the most able quintile, outcomes are better at a grammar school.

There's no contradiction here - the two papers are completely consistent, and indicate that grammars are better than comprehensives for able children, but that those left behind in secondary moderns do a bit worse academically than they would have done in an unsegregated system.

This isn't surprising.

Parents, of course, don't care about average outcomes, they care about outcomes for _their_ children. So 20% of parents have an incentive to campaign vocally for grammars, because their kids will do much better in them. Those parents, of course, will tend to be better educated and have better jobs (there's a genetic component to intelligence, educated parents tend to have houses full of books etc.)

There really isn't any ambiguity here.

(And for all their pious mouthings, we see that few of the Labour leadership are prepared to sacrifice the education of their children in aid of the greater good, so I'm not sure why we should expect anyone else to do so.)

A more interesting question is to determine what the correct metric for school performance is. Given that there are finite resources available for education, should we be more concerned about ensuring that the most able fulfill their potential, or that the average are raised up? Is it more important to produce more/better potential scientists, doctors and engineers, or to ensure that shop assistants are able to add up and correctly fill out paperwork? I'm not sure I know how to think about answering that.

Hungry Horace

Should we all have equal amounts of sex.

I say that for every ten shags you should have to give me one of yours.


When grammar schools are abolished, what takes their place? Of course social mobility is then constricted.

Tim Worstall

Ah, Chris, no, not quite. I simply aver that as Milburn's paper does not even discuss the possibility then we shouldn't take it seriously.


There is no such thing as non-selective education. The comprehensive system is - in practice - selection by different criteria than exam performance. It's mostly selection by house price, plus the ability to feign a religious belief one doesn't actually hold. Its principal beneficiaries are the dull children of relatively wealthy parents (the parents who can afford the mortgage payments, and are more adept at dissimulation). The main way it narrows social mobility is that these kids can keep down the bright kids of relatively poor parents, so they don't have to compete with them for university places or jobs in later life.

Chris - I agree that the available evidence is notable for its apparent neutrality. Doesn't this suggest that the principal factor determining a child's likelihood of academic success is some kind of genetic predisposition, rather than anything politicians can actually influence?


I see the tired old saw about Grammar Schools and school meal recipients is brought up. The fact is that few of the children from the sort of backgrounds we see on "Shameless" make it to Grammar Schools. My experience at Cambridge nearly 3o years ago was that the working class children from Grammar Schools came from good solid working class families where Dad and Mum were still together, hardworking and encouraged their kids to do the best they could.

The principal reason why today there are fewer people from poorer homes in top Universities and Professional jobs is simple. They no longer get the educational chances they once had when there was an opportunity to go to a state Grammar school.

The idealogues in the Labour Party and the appropriately named NUT know that the Comprehensive experiment has failed (the experiment was never validated), but, because the concept is so deeply embedded in their brain stems, they cannot admit it.

Had the Butler reforms been properly introduced and supported at all levels (Grammar Schools, Secondary Moderns and Technical Schools) we would have a far better education system than we have today.

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